Tall, willowy and reed-thin, with a startling white ensemble that flows like the Snow Queen’s robes, she glides through her vast new, armory-sized Knight Street showroom in Norwalk as if being pulled on a Roman yacht. The vast sea of furnishings and home design accoutrements seems to part for her as she moves along — couches, chairs, tables, armoires, chaise lounges, body crèmes and candles, six-foot-tall vases, enormous vintage posters hanging above twenty-seat dining room tables, canopy beds layered thick with thousand-count Egyptian sheets and covered with creamy chenille bedspreads. From accessories and apothecary, duvet covers and draperies to Zanzibar-inspired sidetables, Lillian offers a bit of insight and history on every piece, and there are a lot of pieces. It could be a breezy, Provence-inspired, lavender-scented bedroom. Or it could be an unassuming and rustic country farmhouse family room, so perfectly lived in that one almost expects the warm aroma of apple pie to waft through the room.
This is what the Chicago Tribune once called her “romantic empire.” There’s no question that the style she has assembled is one that seems to be the motif in 90 percent of the living rooms in Fairfield County — some charming, eclectic, theatrical spin on the antiques theme so that one’s house resembles the set of a Merchant-Ivory film. “Collected over time” is what Lillian’s people like to call their motif. “Accessories that hint at romantic pasts and promising futures” is another marketing position.
The unassuming red two-story brick building, a hulking 100,000 square feet of raw space, formerly the site of the C. R. Gibson stationery goliath, is now spit-and-polish clean, with a gleaming metal portico welcoming customers. “Sometimes they come in for a bar of soap or some pillows,” says Lillian’s eldest son and company honcho Dan Weiss, “And they walk out with a couch or a new dining room. It happens all the time.”
The original Westport store on Main Street was a modest 3,500 square feet of space when it opened in 1987. Now there are seven stores in the tristate region, with others in the planning stages, plus new alliances with the likes of Drexel Heritage, new projects and new combinations. The little shop of yore is now a burgeoning colossus involved in home furnishings, accessories, textiles, licensing and retail. The creative force driving the family dynasty along in all these enterprises has been a kind of pioneer in these fields — even before Martha became a colloquialism.
Her empire first took shape on the kitchen table. She was a well-bred woman from Philadelphia’s Main Line who had found herself in the role of a soldier’s wife in Kentucky, raising three baby boys. Feeling stranded at home, she threw herself into the domestic life. At the sewing machine, her fingers flew. Draperies, dresses, even tailored jackets for the boys. And with everything she made, there was a “little dream” attached.
She understood the psychology of design. She had studied it at three universities, finding time earn to a master’s degree while her husband Morris Weiss fulfilled his army duties before beginning a career as a cardiologist.
In Kentucky, she became fascinated with the work of quilt makers — women who sought to create works of beauty out of something as utilitarian as a blanket. Soon she was making quilts at the table, then getting local craftswomen to help. As her marriage ended, she began to create a business, growing her quilt business, “working the craft show circuit” from a trailer attached to the back of her old Saab. She traveled from craft show to country fair, selling her home-designed textiles and fabrics. Her three sons, Daniel, John and Michael, were pulled along in her orbit, first packing up the station wagon, then loading in the warehouse.
In 1977 she started a wholesale company called Victoria Designs, which featured her quilts and bedding. The Lillian August style — that artful blend of Main Line proper and Southern rustic — caught on fast and her work was soon appearing in Neiman Marcus, Horchow and Ethan Allen.
Her eldest son, Dan, meanwhile, went off to Hampshire College to study business. For his senior thesis he wrote about expanding his mother’s business as a cottage manufacturer. After graduating, he went to work on Wall Street as an investment banker but kept working on Lillian’s business in every spare moment. Finally, in 1987, they decided to go into business together for real.
“I wrote the business plan in 1986 and we took a shot at it,” says Dan, now the company’s chief executive officer and handsome heir to the distinctive aqua-blue eyes. “I was heavily involved in investing plans at the time, and I had ideas on how to raise money, so I just did it. People were looking for exciting retail concepts and that industry was really in its infancy. It was like what was happening in high-tech at the time — people were looking for cool ideas. And, of course, she looked like a designer. People were interested right away.”
Within a year, he had raised $1 million, an amount he refers to as “ridiculously small now and ridiculously huge back then. I quit my job and she left Kentucky and moved to New York City.”
John, two years younger than Dan, came aboard shortly after, taking charge of the Louisville end of the business, and youngest brother Michael, a skilled artist and designer, was wooed away from his playwrighting career at the Juilliard School in New York City to work with the growing business.
Her first Manhattan digs was a loft in the meatpacking district. But operations were expanding so fast, the family felt the need to get into something resembling the country — but within fifty-five miles of the city. Princeton, New Jersey, sounded good. But a bad traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike swung their attention around to Connecticut. Lillian called Dan and told him, “It’s got to be Westport.”
Arriving here, they stopped for lunch at Gold’s Deli in the Compo Shopping Center. With their van stuffed to the beams with quilts and craft supplies, they found themselves drawn into the Staples Craft Fair, which she was familiar with from her days on the craft-show circuit. They sold out their inventory. Westport was, indeed, the place. After securing the store, she found a Victorian house (would there be any other kind for her?) and expanded the business.
“Her first big line sold incredibly well,” says Dan. “It was among the top ten that year, and she designed another one and it was No. 1 in the country.”
With tremendous recognition from customers, retailers, manufacturers and others within the industry, her licensing business and her small retail furnishing business in Louisville, where John was now working, were thriving. But Lillian August had even bigger ideas. She had a spin on an idea for a catalog that she would send to her clientele. Dan began lending her a hand with the new venture, “A lifestyle catalog,” he calls it.
Lillian filled it with the looks she liked, styling the pages with coordinated designs. Says Dan: “Not only could you decorate your house with the styles in it, you could also use the catalog to decorate your life: She sold wall coverings and children’s clothing, crafts, patterns, and window treatments — everything.”
Although lifestyle bibles such as those from Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel fill mailboxes today to the extent that it’s difficult to distinguish one “country living room” from the next “sophisticated den,” twenty years ago it was all new territory. The country was still reeling from the aftershocks of the style setbacks of the ’60s and ’70s, when contemporary collided with grandiose funk and left the nation’s style indentity in tatters. By the 1980s, Ralph Lauren’s name and style hadn’t achieved full bloom yet, and Lillian August’s Victorian-country motif was refreshingly original.
In 1988 the Lillian August Collection, a welcoming little shop on Main Street, opened its doors. Did the family anticipate how it would grow? Not completely. “I thought we were going to set up twenty or thirty little shops, like a Laura Ashley,” Dan says with a smile.
WE’RE ALL PARTNERS
This is not just a family-owned business; it’s more of a business wrapped in a close-knit family, whose success in dealing with one another sometimes comes down to, as Lillian puts it, “closeness, respect, and distance.”
“We’re not a typical family business,” Dan says, “because we all started the business together. My mother and I began it, John came aboard right after and then Michael joined us early on as well. No one inherited anything from anyone. We’re all partners.”
But when a mother is in charge of the family and the business, it becomes a little more complicated. “The furniture business is full of family businesses,” says Lillian. “A mother in charge of her sons, as opposed to a father in charge of his sons, might be more aware and concerned about everyone’s emotions, but that doesn’t minimize the demands on the business. So, the best way to move forward and to be successful in your business is to take the emotion out of it. It’s what would be expected of anyone running a successful business, man or woman, parent or not.”
Partners, indeed, but in a crowded pas de quatre. Witnessing them interact socially is like watching a cross between a ballet and a hockey game. There is a melodic and swift hum to the communication among them, the content of which does not necessarily have anything to do with running their business per se. They are aware of each other’s proximity and presence on an almost preternatural level, or, at the very least, they are tuned to the calibration of each other’s voices and movements.
As far as Lillian is concerned, the fusion of distinct personalities of mother and sons is among the keys to their success. “Dan and John’s talents complement each other so beautifully,” she says. “John’s back-office talent is incredible, and he has this extraordinary eye for design. Dan has an exceptional talent in merchandising and his unique vision is really what brought us to this wonderful space in Norwalk.”
The customers, too, have played their part. “Home furnishing is very much what is on the minds of so many people,” says Lillian, whose licensed products are now sold throughout the world. “This space confirms what we know, which is that people want more than their homes to be filled with furniture. This is a lifestyle.”
Lillian’s life is now split between a house in Vero Beach, Florida, and Westport, where she is looking for a new house. With five grandchildren here, she is bound to spend a lot of time in the area. But she is still designing at a blistering pace, with projects that include a furniture line for Drexel Heritage; a fabric line for Robert Allen; carpets for Trans Ocean; a lighting line for Currey & Co.
“She gets inspiration from all over,” says Dan. The designs she draws herself are put into digital modes by her vendors, and she continues to work on them, overseeing all materials and finishes.
While Lillian and Dan “interface” daily, as he puts it, on licensing and marketing issues, Dan and John’s interactions are constant: their offices are just steps away from each other. Dan, the president and chief executive officer of the company, handles the buying, merchandising, marketing and business development; John (another fortunate member of Lillian’s genetic palette club) is the chief operating officer and handles operations and finance. He is also a noted collector of fine antiques and has been responsible, along with Dan, for many of the fine pieces the company has procured internationally over the years. Michael has been a part-time consultant to the company for the past two years, having ventured on his own to a successful career with a contemporary furniture design company.
Lillian oversees the entire design and licensing end of the operation (a separate — and huge — entity from the retail end), which she has run from her Florida home for more than ten years.
The company’s retail business is especially robust. The new flagship venue is a stealth cottage industry — a house with a few mansions tucked inside. A Lillian August store, Dan says, has its own distinct footprint: “National chains are trying to be all things to all people and not doing any one thing terribly well. We’re not trying to be all things to all people. But what we do, we do better than anyone.”
“Westport has been really good to us,” Lillian says. “We were extremely fortunate to have started as retailers in a community that could respond so beautifully to what we were trying to do. It was that feedback and that loyalty from our customers that built this company as a retail entity. It was a great leap of faith on everyone’s part — the family and the community.”
Now, sixteen years on, both the Lillian August name and the woman are recognizable forces in the furniture industry. The company’s exponential growth is worth considering: the combined square footage of its seven locations is now approximately 160,000 square feet, which is large enough to accommodate about 7,500 average-sized couches. Placed end-to-end, the couches — chintz, leather, corduroy, floral, slip-covered, antique, reproduction, cottage style or French provincial — could decorate close to a well-heeled mile. It may be only half the distance from that first cedar-shingled shop on Main Street to the impressive new quarters down the Boston Post Road, but it’s a distance you can’t take sitting down.